The plan was to head to Tsukiji market, load up on the freshest sushi ever before continuing on the next leg of my solo adventure to Honke Bankkyu. That was the plan.
But it was raining – the cold drizzly rain that drips down your neck and makes you utterly miserable – and it was soooo tempting to just snuggle back under the covers. Plus unlike other hotels, the Villa Fontaine actually offered a decent Japanese breakfast buffet!
I alternated between the mental tug-of-war and actual sleep before I jumped up at 5am, deciding it was time to haul my lazy protesting butt out of bed and get some seafood. I’ve been to Japan twice before and never had the chance to visit Tsukiji. Third time, I was determined, had to be the charm.
The Princess was supposed to come with me but repeated calls to her room went unanswered. So off I went. I was pretty happy to go alone – liked the sense of liberty.
The Villa Fontaine is very well-placed for a visit to Tsukiji – arguably the largest and the most famous fish market in the world. It was either a 15-minute walk or a 3-minute ride via the subway from Shiodome. Had the weather been more obliging, I would have chosen to walk since I could see more stuff above ground than in a train. I would also have loved to cover the Hama Rikyu garden. But it was wet and chilly, so subway it would be!
I got an umbrella from the front desk, hopped down the escalator and voila – the subway was just there. That early in the morning, there were less than five people on the platform of the Shiodome station on the Ginza line. I was the only woman. In any other subway, in any other major city in the world, I would have thought twice about this. But this was Tokyo. About the only other place in the world as safe as this would be Singapore.
Once out of the train, you know immediately where you are from the unmistakeable smell of – fish!
I followed the stream of people to the entrance of the market. A notice on the walls clearly state the new rules: limited numbers of visitors to the tuna auction, no visitors in the market until after 9am. I was already too late for the tuna auction so that was okay, but the other new rule – meh! I chose to ignore it but decided to make a mental note to keep out of the way and to look unobtrusive. Here’s where looking Asian helped – I think!
First impressions – lots of lorries, refrigerator vans, motorised carts, puddles. The place was like an airplane hanger – huge. And that was just the entrance!
I made my way to the outer market – trial and error, skipping puddles and dodging vans and trucks. The outer market is a made up rows of shops back to back. Here were the food stalls and sundry stalls that sold everything and anything that had to do with Japanese food – seaweed, condiments, wasabi roots, pickles, rice, utensils, right down to some really cool t-shirts!
But all that could wait. I had to see the inner market first before all the action died down.
Let me say two things right up front – the inner market is well worth a visit even if you can’t make it to the tuna auction because all of God’s weird and wondrous undersea creations are here – you just have to guess what they are if you don’t know Japanese. Second, wear grungy shoes. The place is riddled with puddles and slippery cobblestones. The motorised cart derby guys do their best to avoid making you roadkill in the market but dodging them may mean jumping into the nearest icky puddle – unless you are very nimble. So you have been warned.
Clams as big as my face, abalone as thick as my fist, wriggly streams of eels, bulbous puffers, all sea creatures great and small, spiny and smooth, they are all there and – apparently – all edible and waiting to be served on someone’s dinner table! The stars of course, were the gigantic tuna and the men who cut, sawed, hacked and filleted them to precise requirements.
The kids would have loved the dangerous-looking metre-long swords, the industrial saws, the axes, wicked-looking hooks and all manner of iron that served to reduce the blood-red meat to more manageable proportions.
The tuna auctions long over, I saw the silver, frost-coated torpedoes lined up on floors, covered by sackcloth. These giant fish looked heavy but the workers just hooked them and flipped them over with ease.
All around, people were looking busy, talking on handphones, writing orders etc. I presume these are the smaller restauranteurs and retailers checking out the day’s best buys. Some did look at me curiously but no one said anything about the fact that I should not be in the market before 9am. There were other tourists also wandering about so I was not alone in flouting this rule.
After seeing all that fish, I went back to the outer market in search of my sushi brekkie. You can’t get sushi fresher than this, straight from the world’s largest fish market!
I saw the line outside Sushi-Daiwa, one of the well-known sushi restaurants in Tsukiji. They had queue poles outside which already told me that the place is used to queues. Plus the line was stretching right around the block! People were queuing in the rain for goodness sake. Look, I love sushi, but I don’t love it that much!
There were faded small mom-and-pop shops which sold noodles too and you can tell these were authentic with workers still in their wellies at the counter slurping away. But I was looking for sushi and finally found a warmly-lit welcoming tiny place. It wasn’t until I sat down at the teensy sushi bar that I realised that the place was full of gaijin! Wrong place to be since this is likely to be less than authentic and catered more to gaijin tastes! But since I was in already, I sat down. The chef could speak English and he sang while he worked – all in the name of showmanship I guess!
I ordered the largest set which cost 3600yen. Came with all the usual suspects including my favourites – including those glistening vermillion spheres of ikura, a long, generous slice of anago, the lushly succulent pale pink otoro and the orange morsel of uni (sea urchin). The set also included miso soup with large prawns.
Next to me was an Irish girl and her British boyfriend. They were sushi virgins. The girl ordered by telling the chef that she’ll have what I have! When her set came, she didn’t know what to do with it so I told her about the different types of fishes on her platter, how to eat it etc. But it didn’t do much good – they tore apart each piece of sushi to ‘share’ and all the best cuts were left either uneaten , nibbled at or worse, spat out – very gross! I don’t know about the chef but I thought that was an appalling waste of food. They were not the only ones. As I left, I noticed other platters left with many pieces of sushi/fish left uneaten. What a waste of good fish!
I know travel is an experience and an experience in a sushi joint in Tsukiji would have counted as an ‘experience’ to be savoured too. But to me, travel also means preparing oneself for the experience and if sushi was really new to these guys, they would have been better off trying out the stuff at a kaitan-sushi joint first. Culturally, they would also have gotten more out of the experience had they read up a bit and tried out a bit of the baseline sushi (eg maguro, shake etc) before coming to Tsukiji and trying out all the more adventurous cuts. Call me a sushi snob, but I think the fish deserve better.
Brekkie over, I indulged in some retail therapy and ended up paying too much for two t-shirts at 4500yen a piece. The prints were really nice though, and I did not see them sold anywhere else. I know, I know – I am trying to console myself!
From Tsukiji, I headed back to the hotel to pack. I had a long and slightly complicated journey ahead of me to the Honke Bankyu ryokan in the remote area of Yunishigawa, up at Tochigi prefecture. More on that in the next post!